National Public Radio’s firing of Juan Williams over remarks he made on The O’Reilly Factor is just the latest example of a public figure losing their job for, to quote Allen Funt, “getting caught in the act of being themselves.”
While I don’t buy the various defenses that are being deployed on Williams’ behalf, there is an important principle at stake that is being washed away, not in the name of “political correctness,” but expediency. While loose lips have always been in danger of sinking career ships, the bar has been lowered to a level that can only serve to end our most valuable conversations.
On the subject of Juan Williams’ firing, several blogs have pointed out that the full video of Williams’ remarks (which Mediaite has posted) show him advocating for tolerance, but in reality, he is employing the same “one of the good ones” rationale that has been a staple of in-denial bigots for generations. While he asks for a distinction between moderate and extremist Muslims, it is a distinction that he obviously cannot divine from his airline seat. A generation ago, Archie Bunker might have asked how he could tell whether the black man approaching him on the street was one of the “good ones,” or one of the “bad ones.”
Unfortunately, Williams was supposed to be the voice of reason on that panel, and if he had been, he would have pointed out that his (remarkably honest) confession about fearing Muslims on a plane had more to do with an instinctive response that can be overcome with reason, rather than a political correctness-threatened reality.
As Matt Lewis points out, though, firing Juan Williams guarantees that that conversation never happens.
While inflammatory comments have ended careers for as far back as I can remember (Jimmy the Greek, anyone?), the touchstone for the current trend seems to be the firing of Don Imus for referring to the Rutgers Women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos.” At the time, Reverend Al Sharpton pushed hard for Imus’ firing. While Imus’ remark was reprehensible, many suggested that a far more productive consequence would have been for Imus to engage in a weekly discussion on race with someone like Sharpton. Instead of reaching Imus’ audience with constructive dialogue, his firing made him a martyr to them, and naturally hostile to the notion of racial sensitivity.
Williams’ dismissal comes at a time when careers are ending over inflammatory remarks at an ever-increasing pace. Rick Sanchez was fired by CNN with dizzying speed following some distasteful remarks about Jews in the media. Helen Thomas saw her long, iconic career end in a flash over criticism of Israel that, as widely reported, smacked of nostalgia for concentration camps, but in context, were nothing of the kind. Dr. Laura Schlessinger quit her radio show under pressure almost immediately after using a string of “n-words” to “prove a point” to a caller. Shirley Sherrod was the rare beneficiary of context when she was exonerated of charges of racism upon release of her full speech, but she still lost her job.
None of these decisions were made, however, in the interest of furthering our understanding of issues that have the potential to sharply divide us. These were business decisions, made in the name of expediency. Having Rick Sanchez explain himself, and having someone else engage him in honest rejoinder, is a much heavier lift than just firing him.
Sometimes, these decisions are justified. Rush Limbaugh‘s dismissal from ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown pregame show, for example, was brought on by his assertion that Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb was given undeserved credit for his team’s success because he is black. While Limbaugh’s commentary could also have led to a revealing conversation about race, social commentary isn’t integral to the network’s brand. ESPN stood to gain nothing by doing this, while retaining Limbaugh would have damaged them. Ditto the NFL’s decision to deny Limbaugh a chance to purchase the St. Louis Rams. While some unsourced quotes were attributed to Limbaugh in the run-up to that decision, there were more than enough real ones.
Luckily for people like Limbaugh, they usually operate in a world where there is no price to pay for saying inflammatory things. When Glenn Beck (like Limbaugh) calls health care reform “reparations,” it enhances his brand. Unfortunately, they also perform mainly in monologue, which prevents the tough conversations just as surely as these firings do. Furthermore, their Teflon presence mitigates the possible benefit that firing people like Sanchez, et al, will have any impact on the coarsening of the airwaves.
In fact, this points up the most insidious effect of the trend. While Limbaugh, Beck, and Bill O’Reilly are free to speak their minds, the unforgiving tide of dismissals serves to encourage self-censorship, and therefore, to prevent honest discussions about our most important issues. As Matt Lewis observes, Attorney General Eric Holder‘s words about our nation’s cowardice on race has no truer illustration than this. It doesn’t take courage to sing “Kum Ba Yah.” It takes courage to admit that you feel a knot in your stomach when you see someone who’s different from you, and to have that discussion. We won’t always like the way these conversations turn out, as with Williams, but firing people for being honest ensures that we never will.
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